April 13, 2007
Reflections on "Student Quality" Rankings
Posted by Gordon Smith

Brian Leiter has posted two sets of "student quality" rankings, both based on LSAT scores. One ranks the 75th percentile and the other ranks the 25th percentile. What follows are some thoughts on why these numbers might matter.

Brian's student quality rankings seem particularly salient to me today because I spent several hours this week investigating elementary and secondary schools in Utah. One of the metics by which these schools are evaluated is standardized test scores. This method of evaluation has many obvious shortcomings, but it has the virtue of inter-school comparability.

My use of standardized test scores to evaluate elementary and secondary schools in Utah is quite different from the use of LSAT scores to evaluate law schools. While the standardized test scores are viewed as an output measure, the LSAT scores are an input measure. (Of course, the standardized test scores taken by elementary and secondary school students are not entirely output measures, as the inputs affect the results significantly. Nevertheless, my sense is that most people use the scores to say something about the quality of the schools' educational programs.)

Why should students evaluating law schools care about "student quality" as measured by LSAT scores? Shouldn't they be more interested in the quality of instruction or the variety of program offerings? Are differences in LSAT scores reflected in the quality of classroom discussion? Or are those differences manifest in other aspects of the law school experience?

With regard to the effect of LSAT scores on teaching, I often have heard transfer students observe that the instruction at second-tier school X is as effective -- perhaps more effective -- than the instruction at first-tier school Y. Indeed, many professors at second- or third-tier law schools have a substantial personal investment in the idea that they are every bit as good at this part of their job as the more famous law professors under whom they studied in law school. And my own experience offers no reason to doubt this. Nevertheless, my experience has been that differences in LSAT scores are reflected quite dramatically in the quality of classroom discussions. Students at high-LSAT law schools ask more penetrating questions and engage in more challenging discussions of the materials than students at low-LSAT law schools. (Does this mean that students at high-LSAT law schools are getting a better legal education? That's not so clear to me.)

Another aspect of this debate, often ignored, relates to the spread between the high-LSAT students and the low-LSAT students. As an instructor, I try to teach to the "high middle" (say, the 75th percentile). This strategy is intended to engage a large number of students, including the top students in the class, but the risk is that the bottom students will be left behind. This risk increases as the spread between the top and bottom students widens.

Are differences in LSAT scores manifest in other aspects of the law school experience? My impression is that students at high-LSAT law schools have much different career aspirations/opportunities than students at low-LSAT law schools. The former are likely to pursue partnerships at large firms, prestigious government appointments, careers in legal academe, etc., while the latter largely aim for practices in small and midsize firms, positions in local district attorneys' offices, and the like. These divergent aspirations/opportunities probably are reflected in the types of activities that students pursue outside the classroom. As a result, they have a significant influence on the student life of the law school.

LSAT scores are a bit like star rankings of high school football players. Five-star athletes don't always become All-Americans in college, and two-star players sometimes win the Heisman Trophy. But programs that consistently recruit four- and five-star athletes play a different brand of football from programs that recruit the two- and three-star players. In short, LSAT scores matter.

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